IndyCar Preview: Grand Prix at The Glen

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ second-to-last race of the 2017 season takes place this weekend at the picturesque Watkins Glen International (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), with what will be a busy weekend of on-track action as the series wraps a run of three races in as many weekends, on three different types of circuits.

The return to permanent road course action comes after a run on the repaved 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park last Saturday night, and after a 500-miler at Pocono Raceway the previous Sunday.

Some story lines going into the weekend are as follows:

2017 INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen – Talking Points:

Newgarden vs. Pagenaud takes center stage

In their first on-track competition since Josef Newgarden’s power move on Simon Pagenaud for the win last Saturday night at Gateway, how the Team Penske teammates get on with it will be a huge thing to witness this weekend. One wonders what it would be like to have been a fly on the wall in the post-race team debrief.

As the series heads to two permanent road courses, it’s worth looking how these two – along with teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves – have fared on them this year. Newgarden (Barber and Mid-Ohio) and Power (Indianapolis) have won three of the four road course races this year, with Scott Dixon having toppled the Penske quartet five races ago at Road America despite the Penske drivers locking out the top four positions on the grid. That was the last win for a driver outside Penske.

Pagenaud won at Barber, Indianapolis and Mid-Ohio last year but struggled at Watkins Glen, where he qualified and finished seventh. He’s been third at Barber and fourth on the other three road courses this year, and must find a way to get ahead of his teammates if he’s to claw back a now 43-point gap with just two races left.

Not quite Dixon’s last stand… but it’s close

It’s not that Dixon can’t overcome a 31-point deficit to Newgarden; he overcame a 47-point gap in miraculous fashion two years ago at Sonoma to surpass both Juan Pablo Montoya and Graham Rahal for the title in an unexpected manner. But if he loses more than 10 or so points to Newgarden this weekend – that’d mean he’d finish second or worse if Newgarden was to win – it makes the degree of difficulty harder for Dixon at Sonoma.

Fortunately Watkins Glen is his happy hunting ground. He has four prior wins here, with three different manufacturers (Toyota in 2005, Honda in 2006 and 2007, Chevrolet in 2016). And last year, he dominated every session from the word go. Key here is whether Dixon will be able to maximize the Honda package at his disposal this week, working whatever magic he can to topple the Penske Chevrolets.

The team seems optimistic after a good test and after Dixon did a near perfect job of damage limitation in Gateway, ending second when fifth might have been the best finish had all four Penskes been perfect.

“We certainly weren’t expecting P2. We got some help from some others,” Dixon’s engineer Chris Simmons told NBC Sports at Gateway. “We did what Chip always asks of us. Get the obvious things right and make no mistakes. And of course, Scott drove brilliantly and the guys did great pit stops.”

A win isn’t required but if he can close the gap by about 10 points or so to Newgarden, he’s well within striking distance at Sonoma with double points there – meaning 20 points will cover first and second (100 to 80, before bonus points).

The Andretti domino has fall, officially

The silly season saga that has dominated paddock discussion is Andretti Autosport’s engine decision for 2018. Rumors of a switch to Chevrolet persisted; at Mid-Ohio, Honda Perfomance Development Art St. Cyr told us that Honda “expects to continue with its current lineup” of teams, and now the team confirmed its Honda return.

Along the same lines, the follow-up question is what happens to Honda affiliated drivers Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi. For Sato, a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing reunion is likely – Bobby Rahal told us in July he had “warm feelings” for the current Indy 500 champion – so it seems a question of “when” rather than “if.” As for Rossi, he told us after Gateway he was thankful to Andretti and refuted a report that said he’d already re-signed with the team, instead gauging his options. He also “liked” a tweet that said “not necessarily” that he would return to the team. He’ll undoubtedly get his future sorted.

Bourdais back in his natural environment

After a top-10 finish at Gateway on his return, expect some bigger things from Sebastien Bourdais and the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda for Dale Coyne Racing this weekend. Bourdais qualified third and finished fifth last year, the result coming despite a spin at the start, one aerial trip through the Bus Stop chicane, and making it home top-five on a weekend where his future plans got tipped off.

Bourdais’ only Firestone Fast Six appearance this year came at the similarly smooth surface of the Indianapolis road course before an engine failure in the race. He finished eighth at Barber and rookie teammate Ed Jones was seventh at Road America, proving good things are possible for the Coyne squad here this weekend.

A mini-Indy Lights 2015 title rivals reunion

Harvey, Jones and Pigot – from St. Pete race two in 2015 to all in IndyCar now. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Three young drivers to watch this weekend are three of the four who battled for the 2015 Indy Lights title. That year’s champion Spencer Pigot returns to the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet after a two-race absence; Jones, as mentioned above, will look to return to the top-10 in his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda for the first time since Road America; Jack Harvey, the Englishman, makes his IndyCar road course debut in the No. 7 Autonation SiriusXM Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. All that’s missing here from that grid is RC Enerson, who dazzled at Watkins Glen last year by qualifying 11th and finishing ninth on a great fuel save run for Coyne that wowed most of the paddock.

Pigot’s race pace and race craft has been impressive this year but he’s in need of a good qualifying run; he’s still never made it out of the first round yet. Jones, with Bourdais back alongside him, will look to recapture his early season form. Expectations are modest for Harvey but if he can get close to advancing out of Q1 and figure into the top-10 or top-12 in the race, he’ll have done a respectable job. Each of these three will look to showcase themselves in the final two races.

Other angles to watch

  • Can Will Power and Helio Castroneves, now close to being out of the title fight, throw one final spanner in the works of their Team Penske teammates before Sonoma?
  • How do Chip Ganassi Racing’s other three drivers respond after back-to-back tough races?
  • Graham Rahal and RLL Racing haven’t had the best of form on road courses this year and struggled here in 2016. Will they have made strides to threaten the leaders?
  • Will James Hinchcliffe and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team atone from late-race heartbreak last year when they ran out of fuel in the final laps when running second? Same for Takuma Sato, now with Andretti Autosport, who spun from a potential podium?
  • Can A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ young duo of Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz carry momentum from the team’s best all-around weekend in Gateway?
  • How do all the different types of rubber impact grip levels throughout the weekend? Beyond Firestone, Cooper (MRTI), BFGoodrich (MX-5) and Toyo (Stadium SUPER Trucks) are also represented on the track.

The final word

From Dixon, the Watkins Glen dominant driver over the last few times here: “We’ve had some success at Watkins Glen over the years and it’s been one of the better tracks for the No. 9 team historically. The goal is to do what we did last year, both starting and finishing strong. We’re in striking distance with two races to go in the championship, including the double-points race in the Sonoma finale, so we need to be fast out of the gates this Friday.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 1
10:15 – 11 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, (Live)
3:05 – 3:50 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)
3:55 – 4:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice,

Saturday, Sept. 2
10:30 – 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), (Live); TV: NBCSN (Taped, 7 p.m.)

Sunday, Sept. 3
9 –  9:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, (Live)
1:07 p.m. – Driver introductions
1:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
1:47 p.m. – INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (60 laps/202.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Scott Dixon (pole)
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Conor Daly
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Simon Pagenaud
8. Alexander Rossi
9. RC Enerson
10. Max Chilton

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six: 

1. Scott Dixon
2. Will Power
3. Sebastien Bourdais
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Tony Kanaan
6. Max Chilton

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).